Top Lawyers: Attorney Jonathan Merel On The 5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law

An Interview With Chere Estrin

Chere Estrin
Authority Magazine

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Hire the best people: You are only as good as those around you. This is so true in any area of the law. Law firms are built around great individuals, not just one person. Create a great workspace so you can attract the top talent. It takes more than one attorney to build a firm. You need to surround yourself with the best from top to bottom. Whether it be the partner or the receptionist, having the best people surrounding you will breed success and make your clients happy. It will also provide you with peace of mind so when you’re busy with a trial (or even on vacation) you know that your people are holding down the fort and you know that your clients will be in good hands. Build your firm around the best, and it will become the best.

The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Merel.

Jonathan Merel is the Founder and Managing Principal of The Law Offices of Jonathan Merel, P.C., a premier law firm concentrating on the practice of divorce and family law based in Chicago. A thought leader in the family law space throughout his 20 years of practice, Jonathan is often featured as a contributor in news publications, on local radio shows and other media.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?

I actually never thought I would grow up to be an attorney. Despite being surrounded by lawyers in my family, the legal profession never appealed to me when I was young. Once my dream of becoming a major league baseball player went by the wayside (probably in 6th grade), I realized I was not going to be going pro in any sort of sport (to the surprise of nobody). So off to college I went and after not really knowing what I wanted to do after graduating, I figured why not go to law school and perhaps figure out what I was destined to do with my life. My second year of law school, I started working as a law clerk for a family law firm as I thought maybe this area of the law would be interesting. I instantly loved the practice of family law. It was never dull, it was focused on helping people and their families and I was hooked. The rest (as they say) is history.

Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?

My practice focuses solely on the areas of divorce and family law. From divorce cases to custody cases to parentage cases to support cases to prenuptial agreements, we put our heart and soul into doing whatever it takes to accomplish the goals of our clients, while advising them every step of the way.

You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Work Hard. If you don’t have the work ethic it takes to be successful and the drive to be the best, it just is not going to happen. As a young lawyer, I wanted to get in the office earlier and stay later than anyone else to prove that I would do whatever it takes to learn and be a key asset to the firm I worked for. I also wanted to be a sponge for information — whether learning how to practice from the older attorneys to studying the law, I was going to do whatever it takes to be better than everyone else around me.

Expand your Network. You aren’t going to get to the top if you can’t bring in business. From the day I passed the bar exam, I set my sights on broadening my network, meeting new people, and cultivating these relationships so when anyone needed a family law attorney, they knew to call Jonathan Merel. To this day, succeeding in this business is as much about who you know as what you know. While knowing how to practice law is of course crucial, knowing how to grow your practice is just as vital.

Care about your clients. This may seem obvious but the more you truly care about your clients, the more you are going to be motivated to do a great job for them and the more thankful they are going to be when you accomplish their goals. It may sound simple, but when your client feels like they are more than just another client, the attorney-client relationship will flourish even more. While clients retain me to do a job and not to be their friend, if we establish a good rapport and relationship built around compassion and trust, there is a better chance that we will obtain the results our clients want.

Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?

I am a firm believer in the idea that people create their own luck. Does luck help once in a while in everyone’s life, of course. But I didn’t stand around waiting to get a lucky break to establish myself in the legal profession. I knew I had to work my tail off to get where I am today and while the hard work never stops, the hard work gets more gratifying as my career continues and my law firm grows. Never will I rely on a lucky break for my career or in my representation of clients. Hard work breeds good results. If you throw in a little good luck from time to time, I am not gonna complain about it but it certainly won’t be something I ever rely on.

Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?

While I attended a good law school, the idea of needing to attend a top tier law school to achieve success as an attorney is untrue. First off, law school doesn’t teach you how to be a lawyer. With all due respect to my law school faculty, learning about cases from 200 years ago may help lay a foundation for what it takes to be an attorney, but it is not teaching me how to practice law in the modern world. This may sound silly but the only way to learn how to practice law is to practice law, not read about it.

Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?

This is a great question that I have never really thought about. To be honest, there is really not a lot I would change after looking back. I would not have much to tell my 20 year old self other than keep doing what you’re doing and do what makes you happy. I really have no regrets. I went to law school. I made the most of law school. I found my passion in law school. I got a job practicing my passion. I learned at my first job. I left to start my own firm when I knew it was time. I have created an amazing firm and a great work environment built around helping people in times of need. My job is fulfilling in so many ways and I would never change that. While I have certainly made mistakes as everyone does, I would not change a thing.

This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?

It sounds cliche but I really like helping people through a very difficult period in their life. That is what we as family law attorneys do and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I go to work every day knowing that I am going to make a profound difference in the life of someone, whether it be my client and/or their children, and that feeling is something that drives me to do my best every day I practice law. I love fighting for my clients and I love the feeling I get when I know I helped them. There are not many other fields in which you can get that type of satisfaction.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

As a family law attorney, the excitement never ends. I have always said, once I think you have seen it all or heard it all, then comes tomorrow. My most interesting and gratifying cases alway seem to involve those in which I can help a client and or his/her children escape a dangerous situation. Nothing is more gratifying than assisting a client in getting out of an abusive relationship or returning a child who has been unlawfully removed from his mother or father. I truly feel like the justice system is running on all cylinders when I can help good prevail over evil.

Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?

While I will always focus my career on the practice of family law, I believe I will ultimately be more focused on working ON the business instead of IN the business. I love the business of law and the idea of growing a law firm through marketing and branding. Again, while I never want to stop interacting with our clients and assisting in their cases, I do think I will begin to focus a bit more on continuing to build my firm’s “brand” and continuing to market and grow the firm as best I can. I want my firm to not only be the best, but I want everyone to know we are the best, and it’s my job to put the wheels in motion to get the word out.

Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?

There are too many to count. As you can imagine, family law can be a very sensitive area so I would prefer not to disclose the details.

Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?

I am a strong believer in the fact that human interaction in a law firm is crucial. Lawyers need to be around lawyers to excel and that is especially true for young attorneys. I can’t have my young associates learning how to practice law by laying on their couch with a laptop every day. They need to see, hear and breathe the law firm to learn how to practice law and understand how to learn. They need to hear other attorneys talking to opposing counsel or chatting with clients. They need to be able to walk down the hall to ask a question about something they don’t know. They cannot do this at home. I have always strived to build a great culture at my law firm, where people don’t dread going to work every day. Thankfully, I believe I have done that by assembling an amazing group of employees who truly like each other, from top to bottom. While we do offer the option of working from home one day per week, most decline the option because they want to be in the office with the squad. I hope that never changes!

How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?

Obviously the biggest change is that we have entered the Zoom court era. Most court appearances these days, especially in Chicago, are done via Zoom. While some judges have lawyers and litigants back in the courtroom, most of us are appearing before judges from our computers. Some like it, some hate it. Regardless of what anyone feels about it, I think some aspects of the Zoom court era are here to stay. I think judges and attorneys realized that we don’t have to be in court for every appearance, especially for routine status updates or pretrial conferences. Trials and hearings are a different story. Lawyers need to look witnesses (or jurors) in the eye and show that body language that is so important. While I think the pandemic will leave us with lasting change in the court system, we can never replace that in-court setting that we all are so accustomed to.

We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?

As I said before, networking is crucial. It’s not just what you know, it’s who you know. I have always been keen on the idea of networking, getting my name out there, and meeting as many people as I possibly can. I want the whole world to know that Jonathan Merel is a top divorce and family law attorney.. If nobody knows who I am, the phone is not going to ring. Lawyers need to promote themselves as much as they need to learn the law. That is the business of law. Get out and meet people. Grab a drink. Go to a game. Meet for lunch. Go to a conference. The more people who know you, the more referral sources you have. The more sources you have, the better chances of getting business. The more business you bring in, the more valuable you are. Network, network, network.

Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?

Social media has become a crucial point for branding in the legal industry. While it may not get you immediate business, you need to brand your name and your firm to show people that you are out there. Social media is an extremely effective tool in getting the word on who you are, what you do and how you can help people. It is also a great resource for publishing information to the public about your area of practice and showing them how you can help.

Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.

Drive: You need to have the will to succeed in this business. Work hard. Competition is fierce and you need to establish yourself, earn your reputation, and stand out from the others. Create a name for yourself and your firm by working hard and turning that drive into success in every aspect of your career. As a young lawyer, I always made sure I billed more hours than any other attorneys, worked longer than any other attorney and worked harder than any other attorney. It was impossible for my bosses not to see this and by creating that strong work ethic right out of the gates as a young attorney, you are laying the groundwork for a successful career.

Patience: Success does not come overnight. You might not be paid what you think you are worth at the outset of your career but don’t let that get you down. Success is not given, it is earned. You need to pay your dues as the low man on the totem pole and do whatever it takes to soak in the knowledge you will need to succeed as an attorney. Some young attorneys might get discouraged that they are working so hard but not seeing the results financially. Stick with it. Know that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Learn your craft, work hard at it, build a book of business, and the money will come.

The It Factor: Some people have it, some don’t. You really can’t teach it. Some people just have that thing that makes them a successful attorney. Whether being savvy or thinking on your feet in the courtroom, or knowing exactly what question to ask at that deposition, knowing when your witness is lying, having that calming presence when meeting with a client, or just always portraying confidence in all that you do, that “it factor” is a trait that you will find in all successful attorneys.

Knowing the Business of Law: you can’t just get to the top by being a great attorney. You need to build your business and your brand. This is done through marketing, networking and simply getting the word out one way or another so people know who you are. Brand yourself. Brand your firm. Establish an identity in the community so people know who they need to call when a family law issue arises. Most people don’t just know where to turn when presented with a family law issue. Market, network and scream from the mountain tops so everyone knows who you are, what you do and that you are the best around when it comes to family law.

Hire the best people: You are only as good as those around you. This is so true in any area of the law. Law firms are built around great individuals, not just one person. Create a great workspace so you can attract the top talent. It takes more than one attorney to build a firm. You need to surround yourself with the best from top to bottom. Whether it be the partner or the receptionist, having the best people surrounding you will breed success and make your clients happy. It will also provide you with peace of mind so when you’re busy with a trial (or even on vacation) you know that your people are holding down the fort and you know that your clients will be in good hands. Build your firm around the best, and it will become the best.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

Growing up in Chicagoland in the 90’s, not only was Michael Jordan my childhood hero winning championship after championship for the Bulls, but to this day his impact on my life remains firmly in place. Not only am I a sneakerhead who still spends my days (when not in a suit) rocking Air Jordans (don’t even ask how many pairs I own), but Michael’s legacy in business after his retirement from the NBA has been something that I have always followed closely. One might think that the greatest basketball player of all time might just call it a day once he hung up his J’s for one last time, but MJ was just getting started. Whether it be his ownership of an NBA team, the expansion of the Jordan brand, his continuing impact on pop culture, or even his NASCAR ownership endeavors, the guy just never stops. Throw in the fact that I am as obsessed with golf as he is and that is exactly why Michael Jordan is someone I would love to break bread with (but would love to golf with even more)!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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Chere Estrin
Authority Magazine

Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing, a top national and international staffing organization and MediSums, medical records summarizing.